Two aspects related to UK defence strategy and policy that emerged overnight and that might have been better not said have attracted much attention. The first surrounds perfectly sensible remarks made yesterday morning by the UK National Security Advisor, Sir Mark Sedwill and the second, what to me looks like a scurrilous attempt to cast doubt on MOD statements that it had seen “no evidence” that air strikes over Syria had caused civilian casualties:
On the first matter there appears to have been a concerted effort on the part of some to misinterpret perfectly sensible remarks made by the UK National Security Advisor, Sir Mark Sedwill yesterday morning to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee when he had suggested that the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers would only ever go to war alongside allies. Putting this another way would be to say that the carriers would not be deployed by the UK Government in contested waters without allied partner ships operating alongside and in support.
It seems that some have decided to turn Sedwill’s remarks into a suggestion that even if we wanted to we could never deploy the aircraft carriers in contested waters due to there being insufficient levels of sovereign surface and sub-surface support capability available. That is not entirely true but in any event, the bottom line is that what Sedwill actually said yesterday has actually been Government policy for more than twenty years. We go to war with our allies alongside. Remember that this is not just a UK policy but policy of the US, Canada, France, Denmark and Norwegian navies as well. Of course, each could if they so choose, go to war on their own but it is very unlikely in my view that they would. Routinely they would deploy together and in support of each other. Even if the twenty year strategy of not going to war without allied partners alongside holds strong to this day, that the UK has not gone to war without allies alongside since the Falklands War does not mean that we could not do so long as Parliament decided that this was the right thing to do.
Now I readily admit that the Royal Navy has insufficient surface ship capability and probably sub-surface too and that these are serious problems that must be addressed within the ongoing defence review process. Those who fought for and drove through the rebuilding of Carrier Strike capability I the UK did so in the certain knowledge that when the carriers are at sea in a hostile environment that they would be fully protected by destroyers, frigates and sub-surface capability. That basis still applies and I am sure that the one carrier that will be at sea at any one point will have sufficient protection afforded. But it doesn’t all have to be done sovereign Royal Navy capability in support, it can also be from our NATO allies.
I am not sure who it was today who first attempted to turn Mark Sedwill’s remarks into a suggestion that if the above [carrier deployment in contested waters only being possible alongside allied ships in support] is true that should the Falkland Islands be invaded and because [presumably] we could not guarantee on our allies supporting us in such a deployment, we might then be unable to deploy our carriers in order to retake control of sovereign UK territory but to all of it I say bunkum – such innuendo is complete nonsense.
Sir. Mark Sedwill was not only answering questions in relation to the above yesterday but also on the work being done on the Modernising Defence Programmes (MDP) review which I suspect will be published some time during the autumn. MDP has its origins in the delayed defence strand of the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) the results of which were reported in late March. I will write on this further on MDP in due course but from what I can see, the Defence Committee made heavy going in its attempts to explore the relationship between the NSCR process and the MDP and of what might be the implications for defence from the Government’s revised national security policy.
The second issue in respect of a BBC attempt to find someone in Iraq who might be prepared to cast doubt on MOD statements that it has received no evidence that air strikes undertaken by the Royal Air Force over Iraq had caused civilian casualties is to me far more alarming.
Other than a source who we are told by the BBC reporter, comes from inside the coalition fighting Islamic State having said that he ‘believes’ civilians might have been killed as a result of Royal Air Force air strikes over Iraq, no real or hard evidence is provided whatsoever to back up the claim.
My first sense on listening to this report on BBC World Service in the early hours of this morning was that it almost sounded as if words, or at the very least, auto suggestion that civilians might have caught up in bombing raids, could have been put into the sources mouth. Of course that couldn’t possibly be true could it – after all, this is BBC reporting that we are talking about.
Yes, despite the brilliance of the accuracy of precision bombing by the Royal Air Force, no-one ever ignores the possibility that civilians might have been caught up or drawn into a targeted explosion. The MOD has never denied the possibility that civilians might have been killed but the point here is that is has stated very clearly that it has seen no evidence of civilian casualties as a direct result of Royal Air Force aircraft being involved in the Op. Shader Iraq bombing campaign.
Added to this I would respectfully suggest that in a world that requires absolute transparency on the scale that defence related activity does here in the UK, that without denying the impossibility of complete elimination of risks to civilians from precision bombing attacks, that if the MOD says that it has received no evidence of deaths or casualties occurring as a result of precision bombing attacks made on targets in Iraq over the past three years then as far as I am concerned we have to believe that to be true.
The BBC source went on to describe an attack by an RAF Tornado which fired a Brimstone missile on what was described as a ‘lorry bomb’ in eastern Mosul in January 2017. According to the source, the strike caused a large secondary explosion and one that the source believed led to two civilians “almost certainly” being killed.
In response to the allegations, the MOD has insisted “very careful analysis” had concluded that those killed were “highly probably” IS fighters.
You must of course make up your own minds on this and we should be under no illusion of the regrettable possibility that civilians could be caught up in bombing attacks. But the point for me is that the MOD has continually emphasised that it has and will always do “everything possible” to minimise the risk to civilians. Rightly the MOD can and should emphasise the professionalism of Royal Air Force crews involved, the intense training done ahead of deployments such as this, the rigorous targeting procedures that are I place in respect of firing any kind of precision weapon.
Without providing unequivocal evidence that civilians had been killed I am bound to question not only the reasoning but also the intent behind the BBC reporting of what it has today under the heading of ‘RAF strikes on Iraq may have killed civilians’. If and until whatever the ‘source’ has told the BBC can be proven without doubt, then as far as I am concerned this is a story that should not have been allowed to see the light of day.
CHW (London – 2nd May 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785